Thoughts on libraries and a cultivated sense of curiosity

(This is a semi-stream-of-consciousness post. I'm thinking out loud rather than posing a question I have real answers to. But it's been on my mind lately; if any of you have any better answers than I do, have at it in the comments!)

A couple of the people I follow on Twitter posted links today to Heather Wilson's recent Washington Post article "Our Superficial Scholars," a dispiriting view of recent Rhodes Scholarship applicants as hyperspecialized and unused to thinking about larger questions. Then I scanned the New York Times forum on the question "Does college make you smarter?"—which cites the recent book Academically Adrift, a report on how little college students are learning—and was struck by Leon Botstein's response:

All many [high school students] know is rote learning, and fear of mediocre standardized tests and grades. No vital connection between learning and life has been forged in our schools, much less any affection for voluntarily using one’s mind in the rigorous, sustained and frequently counterintuitive way that leads to innovation and the advancement of knowledge.

But our colleges and universities do pitifully little about combating student passivity and absence of curiosity. … Since the specialized and competing interests of faculty from disparate fields seem hard to reconcile, all but a handful of institutions fail to have significant programs in undergraduate general education designed to equip students with serious skills, inspire them to raise their sights and help them discover what they might be interested in.

Partly I wonder if things are as bad as that. I suspect that on a large number of campuses you can find both deeply engaged students and students who aren't learning much. As one Twitter friend said of Wilson's article, "Always mildly suspicious of decline narratives. Faults don't ring true." 

But I've also seen that lack of interest in one's own education in quite a few students myself. (Not so much since I became a librarian; the students I see in the library tend to self-select for engagement with learning.) It used to depress me a lot back in my previous life teaching freshman writing. There were always students who were interested in the larger world and who seemed to like learning new things, but there were also always students who just didn't seem curious about anything. And it was the lack of curiosity that really worried me, partly because I don't think you can really get an education with that attitude, partly because it just seems like a dull and miserable way to go through life.

But I can't really blame them, because if your entire education to date has been about jumping through a series of hoops all designed to lead up to the larger hoop of a college degree that will get you a decent job, it's not surprising if you haven't developed the habit of wondering about the world, of contemplating and looking closely and reflecting and asking questions. (This cartoon is in the back of my mind as I write.)

So I've been thinking about how to foster curiosity in students who maybe have never been encouraged to be curious, and what libraries might do about it. I would love to see some kind of program for small, customized research projects along the lines of "Figure out something you're interested in. Explore that topic. Talk to your librarian about how to do that. Let your exploration take you into other subjects you wouldn't have thought to investigate. Then talk to your fellow students about what you've discovered." Libraries are fabulous places for doing that kind of open-ended exploration, but I think there need to be ways to encourage students to do that—not for a grade—as well as to provide the raw materials for their research.

I'm also wondering if one of the pedagogical techniques I adopted while teaching literature might also be adaptable to a library context. If I wanted to get students thinking a bit more laterally about a given text, I'd have them all look at it for a few minutes and write down an observation or two. Then we'd go around the room and each student would have to find a way to connect his or her own observation to what the previous student had just said. Something about the "Here's an observation; here's an observation; now connect them" structure always seemed to push the discussion out of familiar territory. I wonder if that structure might also work to encourage research exploration as well.

And I'll stop there. Reader, what do you think?

5 Responses to “Thoughts on libraries and a cultivated sense of curiosity”

  1. Jill Smith says:

    I’m a big fan in the directed question. Probably not a surprise, because lawyers tend to be trained in the Socratic method.
    Problem is, it’s hard to do well. And it’s all too easy to give answers if you’re teaching – you know the answer, for crying out loud – spend 20 seconds giving an answer instead of 3 minutes eliciting it from the student.
    I also think that warmth, humor, and enthusiasm are underrated in cultivating a sense of curiosity. Role models are important. Modeling is important. Being an intellectually attractive role model by exhibiting warmth, humor, and enthusiasm is important.
    None of these things are measurable. Few of them are teachable.

  2. Jill Smith says:

    Big fan OF the directed question.
    Bed now.

  3. Kelly Miller says:

    I appreciate your thoughts about how to cultivate curiosity! Right now, I’m actually experimenting with one approach that blends literature and libraries. In the first-year undergraduate seminar course called “Global Stories” that I’m currently teaching, the students read short stories (translated or written in English) by authors from around the world. Their only weekly writing assignment is to identify an unfamiliar (foreign) aspect of each story and conduct research on it. The students identify everything from types of food to familial structures to geography to historical events. It’s really cool to see what they identify as unfamiliar. My goal then is to try each week to expand their repertoire of search strategies and sources. I also introduce them to all sorts of librarians and native informants in the community. Anyway, it sounds like the sort of thing you were thinking of…maybe we should compare notes

  4. dale says:

    I guess my first thought is that college-age is awfully late to try to reverse the process (which I know is not very helpful.) If you didn’t beat down kids’ curiosity in the first place you wouldn’t have to try to resurrect it.

  5. Paige says:

    I like that exercise, I may adapt it for the coming quarter — thank you for describing it.
    A while ago I was at dinner with Woman With Needlework, and musing about how I’d like to teach a course that was specifically designed to introduce people to the different sorts of careers they might undertake, not by just reviewing job titles, but by looking critically at the different approaches to problem-solving used by each, and how they choose to interact with the rest of the world, and with every day life.
    Part of the class would have been meant to give people a chance to figure out whether they were foxes or hedgehogs, but a lot of it would have been about simply seeing a whole different range of jobs than were ever covered in HS — at least, not in my high school experience. Doctor and nurse were covered, but not public health specialist or epidemiologist; scientist was covered, but not the different careers one might have — say, as someone who does research, vs. someone who manages a lab.
    This grows out of my childhood fascination with wanting to be a butler; only in the last couple of years did I learn/articulate that one way I might have translated and adapted that would be to have trained as a Scrum Master.